Dec 23 2009

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Dec 21 2009

Lamb Tagine with Chick Peas and Apricots


Last week a friend gave a big birthday party and asked several of us to cook a Lamb Tagine with Chick Peas and Apricots. Our Whiteface lamb was just right for the recipe.
To feed 8 people cut up a kilo of lamb from a shoulder into large cubes removing any fat or sinew. Put the meat in a bowl and add a teaspoon each of ground cumin, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper and paprika. Gently turn the meat over until it is thoroughly coated in the spices. Leave in the fridge or a cool larder for at least two hours to allow the flavours to penetrate.
Chop 2 large shallots, crush 2 cloves of garlic, peel and dice a small butternut squash.
Heat 4 tablespoons of oil in a heavy pan and brown the meat in batches. Remove each batch into the Tagine. Soften the shallots, garlic and squash in the remaining oil.
Stir in a tin of chick peas, 500grams of dried apricots. Add to the Tagine with just enough good (homemade) stock to just cover the meat.
Cook gently for 1½ hours until the meat is tender and the sauce thick and reduced. Taste and add salt and pepper; always best to leave the salt until the end of cooking as it has a tendency to toughen even the most tender cuts of meat. Sprinkle with flaked almonds and serve with rice, couscous or Quinoa and a green salad.

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Nov 28 2009

Rain, rain, rain…..

Birds feeding in the rain from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Nov 15 2009

November Blues

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Carol Trewin
My friend and food editor of The Western Morning News, Carol Trewin, finally lost her fight with leukaemia on October14th. We met on the committee of the Devon Slow Food Convivia some years ago and soon realised we simply could not bore each other, however hard we tried, with our delight in all things culinary. She encouraged me to keep writing and gave me invaluable help and advice. She was incredibly generous both with her time and professional expertise. We enjoyed wonderful lunches together, regular phone calls. and numerous foodie e mails. In August she asked me to give her a hand to finish her latest book. We planned our foodie tour of South Devon but it was not to be. In September Carol rang and asked me to read ”Picnics” from Elisabeth David’s Summer Cooking at her funeral. Sadly I did that last week looking out over Dartmoor in wild weather amongst a huge crowd of her friends.
How she would have laughed at Grimond de la Reyniere’s advice on pheasant. I miss her.phesy-450

Dark skies belie the time of day, three in the afternoon in mid November and the light is fading fast. Rain lashes sideways outside my window, trees, almost leafless now, outlined black against slate grey ceiling, bend double in the gale. Once again the huge Araucaria araucana dances its terrifying corkscrew dance, swivelling its vast hundred foot trunk this way and that. The radio blares warnings of eighty mile an hour winds, flood warnings, devastation. Dogs and I huddle by the fire in the study wondering if we can pull down the blind and shut out the world. But, no, first we must struggle up to the yard in the howling wind, heads down against the thrust. Soaked once more, we shut up wet little chickens, feed gloomy, bored donkeys, saying goodnight and shutting their door tight against the storm. We must check the ewes and Big Chris, the new ram, in Sunday Orchard before struggling up to the top fields to feed the yearlings and make sure they too are safe. What a storm. Even Mr Porter views this expedition with a lack of enthusiasm.
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The garden which had opened it’s heart to the public in the summer, basking in glowing June sunshine, has gone to sleep. Liriodendron tulipifera sheds leaves as big as plates in the path as we walk. Katsura, almost bare now still warms the air with mouth watering smell of boiling caramel. All around us the air is alive with leaves, golden, yellow, brown flying past as trees close down all systems till spring. We tiptoe through a perpetual fruit salad on the ground. As fast as I collect apples, quince, medlars, walnuts, more cascade through the air landing at my feet.
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A few leeks still stand forlornly by the shrivelled bean poles. A clump of scarlet chard stands alone majestic, glowing like a tiny fire. Nasturtiums flowers cling on defiantly till the first frost. A few roses bloom their swan song
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Apples are pressed, juice strained and stored. Quince are transformed into deep crimson twinkling jelly, thick unctuous jam and sticky squares of sweet chewy membrilo; Christmas presents waiting in the store cupboard. Medlars, once bletted, will also become a translucent jelly to cheer up winter meals.
Wet walnuts are a treat with a glass of wine on a dark cold evening by the fire . Now we must fall back on all the harvested and stored produce of summer and autumn .
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Autumn whirled past in the glow of golden sunshine, long shadows across the windswept fields After a quiet, peaceful week away in the Scillies we returned to a feast of friends and family throughout October. Sheep were brought into the yard for judging, sheep escaped, judges ran amuck snatching and catching at ram lamb horns, flying horizontal across the yard pursuing Chris before he ran off with the now plump ewe lambs. Older ladies scattered, chaos reigned. Guests looked on amazed and we won the Whiteface Dartmoor Sheep Association third prize for the best flock of under fifty breeding pedigree ewes!

Half term found us looking after grand children while parents absconded to Paris. It took two days to build a huge climbing frame gifted to us by a very generous friend . Paul heaved ladders, ropes, slides, swings into place. I was sent aloft to align higher beams and tighten nuts. Harry trimmed back bolts with a hack saw, Bee wielded a huge spanner and Flo gave us directions while retrieving instructions from the mud. We had unsuitable chocolate-rich picnics in the top barn, walls were scaled and courage screwed up to jump from the top door on to the soggy soft grass below. Trees were climbed, races run across Sunday Orchard, chickens cleaned out, donkeys stroked and brushed, the yard circumnavigated many times on bicycles; we all slept soundly.
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November and the shooting season is in full swing, continuation of that Glorious Twelfth, which in turn means cooking pheasant, or thinking of another way to cook another pheasant! Roasting with bacon and chestnuts and brown crumbs is delicious provided the bird is plump and youngish, old skinny flyers turn into tough, dry chewy morsels.

Having trawled my cookery book collection once more for new ideas, I climbed the book shelf and pulled down my ancient dusty copy of Larousse Gastronomique 1966 price Five Guineas reduced to 55/- ; dense print and funny black and white photographs a myriad of dishes, huge mounds of trifle, grey Florentine eggs, an alarming looking dogfish. How colour photography has changed our cookery books and our diet! Despite such alarming recipes as a haddock stuffed with suet, trussed into an S shape, head still in place, baked in Madeira, it is without doubt a magnificent record of culinary art, really it is.

But back to pheasant; much is made of the faisandage of pheasant, indeed the very word is derived from faisan, French for pheasant. According to Larousse the great Brillat-Savarin is said to have held the opinion that ”faisain is not fit for the gastronome’s table unless it is in a state of putrification” Fortunately to my relief, Larousse goes on to say “this habit of hanging meat until high, though approved by a few connoisseurs and usually motivated by snobbery, is properly reprehended by those concerned with hygiene and also by the true gastronome”. What a relief to us all, not least Health and Safety and the Food Standards Agency.

But then I found the words of Grimod de la Reyniere 1758-1837, wily aristocratic who survived the Revolution, restaurateur and first critic of French food. He too shared Saverin’s view that pheasant should be well hung declaring that it “ wishes to be waited for as a government pension is waited for by a man of letters who never learnt how to flatter anyone” One wonders how indeed he did avoid the guillotine uttering such inflammatory words during the Revolution..

Famous for his dinner parties held at his parents house in their absence, he was eventually caught by his father and disinherited and “exiled“ to an Abbey near Nantes. He had a dressed pig for the occasion and placed it at the head of the table. His father was unamused. It was not until 1792 that he returned to Paris to continue his innovative gastronomique career. Finally in 1812 he inherited the family fortune on his mother‘s death, married his mistress, staged his own funeral to see how many friends he had and then retired to his Chateau outside Paris.

I digress. If pheasant is cooked as soon as it is killed the meat is tough and tasteless. If, however it is hung for a moderate time, say four or five days, the oil from the feathers is absorbed softening and adding flavour to the meat. But on no account should the bird be going off.

Pheasant “a la Normand” is definitely my favourite standby; apples calvados and cream seem to be made for pheasant and prevent the meat becoming dry. They compliment the flavour wonderfully and are ideal for oven ready birds which have been commercially prepared.

Brown a brace of pheasants in melted butter in a heavy frying pan then set aside on a plate. Melt more butter in the pan and fry a kilo of peeled and chopped apples till golden. A sweet apple is best such as Cox or reinette.

Choose a casserole that will snugly take the two birds. Put them breast-side-down on a thick layer of the apple. Pack the remaining apples all round the pheasants. Pour on 125ml of crème fraiche.

Cook gently for about an hour at gas 4 or 180c checking after forty minutes or so. After an hour take them from the oven, raise the heat to 8 or 230c and pour over more crème fraiche with 4 tablespoons of Calvados. Return to the oven for five minutes.

Leave to rest before serving. As with all meat resting for a while will make it easier to carve.

Sometimes I add celery or celeriac and smoked bacon or pancetta. There are a myriad of pot roast recipes for pheasant ; add cabbage or mushrooms, carrots, onions, truffles, red wine, Madeira, cider. A young bird may be spatchcocked, spread generously with butter and olive oil and grilled slowly till the flesh is firm and cooked through but still pink. In fact pheasant is a most accommodating game for experimentation.

And finally I love the sound of Hugh Fearnely-Wittingstall’s Flying Toad in the Hole! That will definitely be the destiny of the next bird I cook; pheasant breasts, prunes and bacon joining sausages in a traditional batter, sounds delicious.
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Sep 18 2009

The Arrival of Mr Porter

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Year after year the seasons roll reliably along just as they always have since time began, moving in such timeless momentum we hardly notice their passing. Spring blends into summer, summer slides into autumn and suddenly we wake up and realise that winter is breaking over us again. It all feels so predictable and yet each day, week, month that passes, unfolds, unwraps in its own unique and inimitable way; the same but not at all the same, the same but absolutely different.
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August raced past in a mizzelly, damp wave of family birthday party, regattas, Red Arrows, judging sheep at the Totnes Show, judging cakes at the fete, picnics in the rain, dingy sailing, rowing races, making bread and pasta at Manna from Devon, camping in the garden, climbing in the old barn, running in the fields , riding bicycles, barbecuing swiftly between showers.
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There were damp forays to the beach, icy dips in the paddling pool, noisy, joyous family meals around the kitchen table, talking, laughing, washing, cooking, oh and so, so much more. Days and weeks rolled along in a very English-Summer sort of way. Then family returned home, children returned to school, holidays ended and we were left, tired and happy, basking briefly in the illusive sunshine we had longed for in the previous weeks. Autumn had crept up on us again.
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And suddenly it’s September. Warm sunny autumn days are encircled by that zing in the air. Sharp mornings and raw evenings foretell what is ahead. Leaves begin to change colour and a certain tiredness seems to sweep over the landscape bringing with it just a hint of decay, of early signs of the ensuing hibernation. Geese fill the sky once more, buzzards conduct loud flying lessons teaching their young how to rise and fall on the warm thermals as house martins swirl overhead preparing to leave.

Combines rumble in the fields along the valley bringing in the last of the harvest and a very new ram eyes up the girls over the gate. Funny little newly shorn lambs stride like skinny, awkward teenagers up Sunday Orchard trying to look cool and grown up. They are alone now without their mothers who, relaxing for a while up the hill, prepare for the cycle of lambing and motherhood to begin all over again. Plus ca change mais toujours le meme chose etc.

But there really is something different or rather, someone different in our midst this autumn. Mr Porter has arrived. In fact he’s been with us now nearly ten weeks, a sort of mad spontaneous birthday present for me. In July, gripped by another of those recurring waves of sadness, missing the terrible, wonderful Min, I googled Cairn Rescue only to be reminded almost at once of the countless hours, days, spent searching for the dear departed delinquent cairn. On the spur of the moment I typed in “Labrador Rescue” instead and the rest is history. Mr Porter is here.
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I’m OK now
We were visited, viewed and vetted, carefully, closely questioned about our doggy credentials. We both recounted the many dogs we’d loved together and separately since birth, produced photographs of ones past and brought forth the present incumbents for interview. We all passed.
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The daft daughter Wellie
All four of us, that is to say Paul, me, Border Collie Meg and, her dear, daft daughter, Wellie, climbed into the land rover and drove some fifty miles across the county to meet the possible contenders. A beautiful yellow lab curled his lip and backed away growling; perhaps not that poor fellow. A gorgeous puppy bounded up to us. Alas, he was blind and with tractors and farmyards, we decided our lifestyle would be far too dangerous for him. Another chap limped up with a very bad hip, again a no on the farm. We sadly prepared to leave when out came a small, wobbly, painfully skinny black, half grown pup with beautiful soft kind brown eyes.

Papers signed and we were in the car travelling home again. No room in the back, so he sat at my feet gazing at me nervously, licking me and making appalling smells. He was so thin we could count his ribs, he didn’t seem to have any tummy and the muscles in his back legs were so weak that when we let him out of the car he fell over. We fed him with the other dogs then took him through the garden and farmyard into a field. I feel certain grass was new to him, so was the lashing rain, but he sniffed and wobbled his way across the field running in a zigzag between us, never for one moment letting us out of his sight.

With regular meals, morning and evening, he is turning into a beautiful strong Labrador with a handsome broad head. He is about eighteen months old , we are told, and is determinedly catching up on the puppy hood he hasn’t had. We have been very careful not to over walk him in order to give him a chance to build up strength in his back legs. Now he bounces around the garden, has no brakes, hurls himself through the air as he races across the fields. He tries so hard to make the older ladies play and ignores them rudely if they tick him off.

He adored playing with the children in the summer and was ecstatic to find their spaniel puppy would play too. He fell in the pond not once, not twice but three times and found, to his surprise that he was a great swimmer in true Labrador fashion, and raced round the garden, tail tucked under tum, in mad celebration of his new found skill! He was amazed at the chickens and had a go at chasing them, which was terrific fun, for him. He stopped abruptly when he discovered this was not a very popular sport!
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A beautiful strong labrador
He licked the donkeys’ noses and made good friends with all three cats licking them and entreating them constantly and without success, to play. As for sheep, well they will keep running away in such a satisfactory manner that he must wear a long lead in their company, until he may, maybe, perhaps, one day, realise they just hate the idea of playing with him and have much better and more serious things to do and see to.

A neglected, starved, caged, pathetic little dog has turned into the most delightful, happy, sweet natured chap I could possibly imagine. He’s even quite intelligent, well, for a Labrador who, as we know, are more famous for their love of food and love of love than intellect!

This morning as we walked to the farmyard, a chill wind swept wistfully through the valley. A dark grey sky began to split and curdle with the growing heat of a silvery sun eventually fading into blue.
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Older dogs walked quietly up the hill, poor Wellie still limping on her bandaged and stitched foot after her mysterious accident last week. We will never know what happened, only that we let dogs out as usual last thing in the evening. Two frightened dogs ran back almost immediately, then seconds later, a terrible screech of pain and Wellie limped in with such a badly damaged foot the vet had to remove her toe. No traps or sharp tin in our garden, so was it a Badger perhaps feasting on apples, who perceiving himself trapped, lashed out catching his claw in her foot? Usually badgers run at the very first sound of a dog and Wellie is no fierce little terrier like the erstwhile Min; she’s a bit of a wimp, in fact. So , who knows , a mystery and a very sore foot.

Porter, abandoning any hope of a game gambles up the hill inventing his own entertainment by tossing a feather in the air and catching it. Sheep go peacefully about their business, some graze, some doze in the long grass, all still eyed longingly by the boy next door. Pausing for a while, we lean on the gate to enjoy the sunshine and look across the fields to a misty blue-tinged Dartmoor in the far distance. Slowly we turn and walk down the hill, let out chickens, feed donkeys checking for warm feet before letting them out into a small fenced area. The grass is still growing fast and full of sugar which bodes ill for those prone to laminitis, so restricted grazing and straw not hay are the order of the day, much to their annoyance. Donkeys and Labrador have a similar attitude to food, neither have a built in stop button!
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Food has been on my mind too lately. An abundance of fruit and vegetables have been making their progress from garden to deep freeze for the winter. Raspberries followed gooseberries, followed red and blackcurrants. Figs in vanilla syrup will make rich comforting flans and damsons topped with breadcrumbs, oats, butter and sugar will turn into unctuous ,rich crumbles to cheer cold November days. November is the low spot of my year! October is golden, December brings Christmas, January delights with the first snowdrops, ditto February with daffodils, March is lambing and so the year unfolds; but, oh, tell me , what is good about November? Maybe its virtue lies in helping me to enjoy and appreciate the rest of the year.
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This years courgettes were, by chance, wonderful, pale and crisp, they held both texture and flavour when cooked. I’ll grow them again, good little Cavili F1.The round Di Nizzi looked pretty but didn’t cook so well. Ridge cucumbers, “Restini” were sweet and prolific, even the ones I missed and allowed to swell beyond their rightful size. Big orange pumpkins promise more chutney and maybe will sneak into a lasagne without Paul noticing. He is not a fan of that gorgeous gourd.
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Beans, broad, runner and French were wonderful this year, particularly the latter “Cosse Violette” who, in the chaos of summer were left till big and purple on the plants. Nevertheless snapped into pieces, blanched and served in a thick tomato and garlic sauce they are deliciously tender without a hint of stringiness. Sadly the tomato sauce was not of my making as tomato blight struck again despite my best efforts. Next year I will grow tomatoes in the poly tunnel and give the little greenhouse a rest .

It is a year now since a large supermarket appeared on our horizon, just fifteen seductive minutes from our once isolated front door. I try, I really do, not to be drawn in, but I do succumb. It does its best to be as eco as it can, windmills whirring to produce electricity for the tills. Local produce does appear on the shelves and, yes, it does give us greater variety all year round, bargains too sometimes.

Last week I spotted a “half price duck” on a high shelf . Being very small I often struggle to reach anything on the top shelves but I persevered to reach this bargain-bird. And what a bargain it turned out to be. Roasted with sage and a ham hock and served with braised celery, the aforesaid beans, my blight-free crushed potatoes, and a redcurrant enriched gravy, it fed five of us, deliciously, for dinner.

The next day we had a cold duck leg each with chutney, salad and baked potatoes. On the third day, this sounds faintly ecclesiastic, I stripped the remaining meat from the carcass, added it to a veloute sauce containing mushrooms and shallot and filled up some crisp vol au vent cases for supper. We ate them with Puy lentils cooked in stock made form the carcass.

Now of course all that remains to be made is “Duck Soup”………….!
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Sep 07 2009

A Veal and Ham Pie

Here is my Cordon Bleu Cookery School Student recipe of 1964; something we rarely make now but, if you have the will, is very delicious. I have brought it up to date at the end!

Despite giving quantities there are no instructions for making the required 8oz of flaky pastry, so buy it ready made! You can improve it by rolling out twice and adding more butter between the layers to make it a bit flakier.

Now here are my 1964 student instructions for the pie: are you ready!

Cut 1 ½ lbs of shoulder or pie veal into pieces 1-1/2 inches square….sorry nothing metric then…. Cut 4oz ham or gammon rasher into thin strips. If gammon is used remove the rind and rust (!?) cut in strips and blanche quickly in boiling water. Arrange meat, ham and 3 quartered hard boiled eggs, a desert spoon of finely chopped onion and the same of parsley, in layers till a pie dish is filled and doming slightly. Pour in enough stock to fill dish three parts full. Cover with pastry. Knock up edges; make a small hole in centre of pie. Decorate with pastry leaves and brush with a little beaten egg containing a pinch of salt.

Put pie to cook at Reg 7/ 425F for approx. 30 mins. Then wrap pie in double sheet of wet greaseproof paper; replace in oven and lower temperature to Reg4/350F. Continue cooking for 1hour or until meat is tender when tested with a thin skewer. Serve hot or cold. If cold add more stock to filling through hole in crust.

It is a delicious pie but maybe these instructions demonstrate why so many of us have lost the will to cook!! Now, without doubt, I would gently cook the veal and gammon filing first. Then assemble the pie with the eggs etc and simply put it in the oven long enough to cook the pastry; none of this wet greaseproof palaver.

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Jul 12 2009

The Garden in June

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Jul 04 2009

Untidy July

sitting-on-the-fence-1Sitting on the fence

June has given way to the chaos which is July. Our National Garden Scheme Opening was a huge success. Well, that is to say it was a huge success on day one when the  torrential rain of the previous day gave way to beautiful blustery summer sunshine. Hordes of people flowed back and forth through the garden all afternoon. Scones smothered in clotted cream and strawberry jam flew off the shelves. My stalwart garden tea girls dished out teas and washed up till their arms and feet ached; a triumph. And our Photography exhibition drew an enthusiastic crowd.

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Mrs Merrill

Complacently we launched forth into  Monday, opening day two. Serves us right. Grey skies, drizzle followed by chilly, scattered showers should have been an omen. “ It’ll clear up” I said in a half cheerful voice. Then we heard that the local council had decided to dig a big hole in the road in Tuckenhay between us and Totnes, the main route here. “ Oh well” I said in a slightly less enthusiastic voice.  It was just then that the vast lorry arrived outside the gate. Despite three phone calls from the company of his destination he had decided he knew best and  would take a quicker route  squeezing  through the tiny Devon lanes.

ewe-1Inquisitive Whitefaced Dartmoor Ewe

Reaching us, he finally realised his error, panicked and tried to turn. Alas he was wedged, unable to manouver either left or right, completely stuck and blocking access to our farmyard, parking, the garden and cream teas!  We were open from two o’clock until five thirty. He arrived at two thirty and finally, bounced out by a rescuing JCB , retraced his ill advised steps at four thirty!

Nevertheless a few stalwarts  braved a detour and walked round a damp windy garden. We did raise a little more money for the N G S  but hardly the £800 of the previous day. They say things come along in threes and they certainly did that day. It was so bad we could only throw up our hands and laugh.

But it didn’t finish there. This was and will be by no means the first or last satellite guided lorry to get jammed at our gate; we’ve been here before but not at such cost to a wonderful charity so we sent a  very gentle polite letter to the unfortunate recipient of the lorrie’s load which brought from them a huge apology and a very generous cheque. So good of them as the lorry company’s persistent disregard of their instructions was not there responsibility. We and the NGS thank them so much for their magnanimity and generosity. We finally raised  £1000 for the NGS over all. Er, will we do it next year? I’m not sure!

grasses-1Wind brushing through the long grass

So now July bounds through the valley. So different from last years soaking, the fields are brown, grass dry and sheep and donkeys scratching what they can. Yesterday’s welcome rain is already being sucked back into the sky aided by a drying wind brushing through the long grass. We moved lambs and ewes onto a field with something slightly better this morning and Paul topped Quarry field knocking down great spiky thistles and wispy hay. More rain, please, to renew and restore the vital nutrients needed by the grazing incumbents.

Down at the bottom of the valley the garden does it’s usual trick of running away in July. It’s a race to cut back the wild garden, the banks and long grass in the orchard, before it engulfs us completely; strimmers whiz, mowers roar racing against natures’ relentless march.

seagull-kiftsgate-and-masquarade-11Seagull, Kiftsgate and Masquarade

The great splash of rampant roses,Seagull and Kiftsgate, are fading beside the pond, replaced by a yellow border of loosestrife (Lysimachia putata), yellow day lilies (Hemoracallis lilio-asphodelos) and the last efforts of golden and orange candelabra primulas.  Wild croscosmia and I hope in time it’s scarlet cousin “Lucifer”.push through spikes of vibrant  yellow ligularia stenocephala flowers  daintily hanging from black stems, framed by their  jagged leaves. They shimmer in the breeze next to their purple leaved relation, Desdemona. Delphiniums soldier on and cosmos sneaks up shaggily, buds about to burst and  clash marvellously in time with this years planting of Echinacea .

loosestrife-and-ligularia-11Loosestrife, Crocosmia and Ligularia

Sweet Peas are something of a triumph too. I’m having trouble keeping up with them as they riot up and over and beyond their supports. Each day I pick armfuls of long stemmed, sweetly scented blooms and fill the house with the smell of summer. I do thank my daughter’s neighbours, the Miss Vaizey’s, for their invaluable advice to plant the seeds in October. I have never had such robust and rampant plants.

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Sweet Pea

And of course the vegetable crop has begun. The broad beans are just wonderful this year. Such a contrast to last years dreadful vegetable crop. We’ve already eaten them quckly blanched and  tossed in butter,  accompanied by a light Bechamel sauce and, the other day, turned in a hot pan with finely diced panecetta, delicious. They will go into salads, tortillas, risottos and as they toughen through the summer I’ll take off their jackets to prolong their season! Finally those that have not been eaten or made it into the deep freeze for winter , will be transformed into a light fresh tasting soup with chicken stock and creme fraiche; so nice!

This year I have grown two sorts of courgette, the round Di Nizza which is good if picked really small but, left to expand, it has that old childhood memory of watery marrow. Courgette Cavili F1, on the other hand , is a real success. Pale green and firm it stays dry and crisp when quickly cooked in butter and olive oil and served with chopped parsley, really good and versatile, it’s definitely one I’ll grow again.

painted-lady-1Runner bean Painted Lady

Painted Lady is daintily and decoratively climbing her bean poles promising beautiful runner beans in a couple of weeks. French beans are looking good too. Not so my brasiccas! An error here, I thought I was planting purple sprouting broccoli but seem to have muddled the packets with a summer variety which goes to seed before my eyes, very disappointing. Then my good friend, Julia, she of allotment fame, sent me seeds germinated, she assured me, from a packet of cavalo nero I had previously sent to her. Alas they are certainly not the strappy Italian cabbages I anticipated. We await to see what they will produce, suprise sprouts for Christmas perhaps.

I have a strange resistance, I don’t know why, to taking off the side shoots of tomatoes. So, of course, my tomato greenhouse is a wonderful rampant jungle of wildly hanging  vines covered in an abundance of yellow flowers. I look on nervously daring to hope for a crop this year instead of a wipe out by the dreaded potato blight which took all last years plants together with their  relations of that name onto the bonfire  without a single edible specimen.

melon-in-a-snood-1Melon in a snood!

My ridiculous pride and glory is a small but expanding melon in the polytunnel. It has grown thus far from a seed from my sister-in-law in California. So excited am I that I have made it a little supporting snood from a  supermarket satsuma net,  should it eventually grow too heavy for it’s stalk; such an optimist, me!

Strawberries were good this year after being dug up divided and moved to pastures new; a tedious exercise which did pay off. They are all finished now, not enough to turn into jam and so disappointing when frozen we simply kept on eating them. Raspberries are ripening, gooseberries, red and black currants too. Some will be eaten and the rest will climb into the deep freeze or turn into jam to cheer long winter months.

by-the-back-door-1By the back door, were I sit and enjoy a cup of tea

So much to do in the garden as the year marches on but now, as the sun continues to shine,  I  am sitting with a cup of tea enjoying  a blackbird’s song break the silence of a perfect summer afternoon.

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Jul 03 2009

Blackbird

Just for the joy of it…….. from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Jun 04 2009

Summertime

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Days, weeks, months have flown by. Spring has slipped silently into the lush green of summer. Apple blossom faded, roses prepare for their annual show. Will they perform in time? I gaze at them pleadingly. The garden open days loom close now. Will the Embothrium still blaze scarlet against the sky? Will the sky be blue or filled with rain and thunder? Will anyone visit, will there be enough cream teas? Will we get the photography exhibition hung in time? Are my photo’s good enough? Is my garden good enough; oh, oh, doubts, doubts haunt me in the early hours.
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On and on my mind races, thoughts tumble through my head jumbled up with anxiety about my father’s new found confusion as his hundredth birthday approaches, as I recover from an eye operation, as adrenalin and elation settle after the success of our village production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” last month, as I fret about so many things which shrink back into proportion with the dawn.
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Serried rows of vegetables are standing to attention in the vegetable garden. Last years little box hedge plants have graciously grown big enough now to hold hands and encircle the herbs. Potatoes, blight-free so far, are sitting snugly in their earthed up bed. Broad beans begin to flower and French and Runners are striking out boldly up their poles. Peas peep somewhat coyly at their twiggy supports prompting me to cheer them on daily. Gladioli spears stand in rows like little scimitars and sweet peas rush ahead crazily missing their supports in their exuberance and strawberries glisten enticingly in the fruit cage Summer is surly here.
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Lambs, so fat and sturdy now, rush round trying to find their newly shorn mothers who wearily baa a gentle acknowledgement as they relax, cool at last… Dinky still unsure of her identity, lives apart from the flock limbo-ing under the gate whenever she gets the chance the in search of human company. Donkeys climb to the top of a well grazed Steep Field in search of the best grass, basking in sunshine and shedding their winter coats.

But it is not all good news. Last Friday the fox came down in mid afternoon and took all but three of my chickens as they pecked happily in the sunshine. A terrible silence met us in the evening when we went to close their house, the orchard full of feathers. Even dear Oddie, my funny long legged cockerel I hatched last year, lay dead in the grass, too heavy to carry away. Sadly we gathered up the bodies if only to deprive Reynard of a second helping. Now a net covers the chicken run and the survivors must stay imprisoned for their safety for a long while until cubs are grown and foxes forget about this convenient tea shop.

Last week we fled to friends in northern Brittany for five lovely days of relaxation and delicious food.

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We visited the local town of St Brieuc and the wonderful gardens of the fortified manor house La Roche Jagu which, built in 1405 by Catherine of Troguindy, dominates the valley of the Trieux River. After the devastating storms of 1987 the gardens have been wonderfully replanted to reflect the history of the estate. The ancient fish ponds, retting basins for the production of linen and hemp and ponds for watering the horses; all are surrounded by living willow fences. Wattle hurdles support the raised beds in the formal herb gardens while terracing, lime groves and pergolas link each space on the steep hillside. By allowing nature to scramble all around the formal gardens, a wild beauty prevails. It is a real triumphant balance of the formal and the natural in a dreamlike setting.
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Evelyne and Michael took such care of us in their restored medieval house bought a few years ago without a roof! The previous inhabitants for several decades had been cows and sheep. Now after enormous effort it is transformed to its former glory, amazingly and quite magnificently, by their own hands.

We relaxed in their galleried sitting room and fabulous old farmhouse kitchen where Evelyne effortlessly produced meal after wonderful meal in truly French tradition.

A leek and potato pie greeted us for lunch as we arrived a little wearily from a night on the ferry. That evening we feasted deliciously on Blanquette de Veau made memorable by the addition of dried morels. The following day a feather light terrine of courgette and sorrel sustained us until the evening when squid stew in “black ink” on an unctuous bed of soft Japanese style rice followed, then sliced apple and cranberries baked in sugar and butter sent us happily to bed.

On Saturday, after a lunch of carpaccio dowsed in dark green virgin olive oil and smothered in basil from the garden and freshly sliced paraggiano, we paused, visiting the local shop to buy wine and walking in the woods surrounding the house. At seven thirty friends arrived for supper. “Aperitifs” finished, we sat down to a feast of Gesire confits de canard on a bed of mache, which I grow in my garden in Devon, easy and delicious. And then came the rabbit.

Well, I get a bit English about rabbit, remembering all those little bunnies my daughter kept as a child. Stop, I told myself, you farm sheep, what is this sentimentality. Oh my, how delicious was that rabbit. Cooked gently on a bed of tomato, courgette, onion, garlic, celery, ground cumin, Dijon mustard and a bottle of white wine, yes, a bottle of white wine, no English tax on wine in France, and all finished with fresh mint and cream. Poor old rabbits, watch out!

After our wonderful day at La Roche Jagu, Evelyne miraculously produced roast wild duck on a Dijon mustard mash.

The next day Evelyne accompanied me on a flying TGV trip to Paris to visit my ailing Godmother. We returned exhausted, but what a rail system, eat your heart out First Great Western. That evening we relaxed by the sea eating moules and frites. I couldn’t believe we had sped across France and back so comfortably in one day.

Oh my, what a wonderful five days. The trains work, the TGV reminded me of the Shinkansen in Japan, the village shop built by the Marie, packed with terrific local produce, fresh pork sausages made right there , wonderful cheese, local wine. In St Brieuc the mighty Carrefour Supermarket, almost as big as a small town and indeed, somewhat overwhelming had a fish counter second to none. I could go on!

We drove onto the ferry happy and refreshed.
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